Hong Kong (AFP) – Vast crowds of democracy protesters thronged Hong Kong’s streets on Sunday in a forceful display of support for the movement as it marks six months with organisers warning the city’s pro-Beijing leaders they had a “last chance” to end the political crisis.
Hundreds of thousands snaked their way through the financial hub’s main island under crisp winter skies in the biggest turnout for months, a vivid illustration of the hostility that still seethes towards the government after half a year of unrest.
As night fell the crowds switched on their mobile phone torches, creating a glittering carpet of lights that stretched far into the distance, their chants bouncing off the towering skyscrapers above.
The rally, which received rare police permission, came two weeks after pro-establishment parties got a drubbing in local elections, shattering government claims that a “silent majority” opposed the protests.
Many of the black-clad attendees voiced anger and frustration that chief executive Carrie Lam and Beijing have ruled out any further concessions despite the landslide election defeat.
“No matter how we express our views, through peacefully marching, through civilised elections, the government won’t listen,” said a 50-year-old protester, who gave his surname Wong. “It only follows orders from the Chinese Communist Party.”
“I don’t know how long the fight will be,” added another protester, who gave his first name as Kelvin. “So far I can’t see the end but we won’t back down.”
A fruit trader, who gave his surname Leung, was handing out free punnets of strawberries to protesters.
“I wanted to bring something sweet for Hong Kong’s people who have lived a very difficult half year,” he told AFP.
– Rare permission –
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has been battered by increasingly violent demonstrations in the starkest challenge the city has presented to Beijing since its 1997 handover from Britain.
Millions have marched in protests fuelled by years of growing fears that authoritarian China is stamping out the city’s liberties.
The last fortnight has seen a marked drop in violence and vandalism after the landslide win by pro-democracy candidates.
Police took the unusual step of allowing the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) to hold Sunday’s march — the first time the group has been granted permission since mid-August — but they warned they would have zero tolerance for violence by radicals.
The movement’s demands include an independent inquiry into the police’s handling of the protests, an amnesty for those arrested, and fully free elections.
“Our rally today is to gather everyone in Hong Kong to defend our city,” the CHRF said in a statement.
Earlier, the group’s leader Jimmy Sham said the march was Lam’s “last chance” to listen to the people.
The protests were initially sparked by a now-abandoned attempt to allow extraditions to the mainland but have since morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing’s rule.
The CHRF, which advocates non-violence, has been the main umbrella group behind record-breaking rallies earlier in the summer that saw huge crowds regularly march in searing heat.
Authorities have repeatedly banned major rallies in recent months citing the risk of violence from hardcore protesters.
Large crowds have simply ignored the bans, sparking near-weekly tear gas and petrol bomb clashes that have upended Hong Kong’s reputation for stability and helped tip the city into recession.
– Police seize weapons –
Hours before the march was due to start, police displayed weapons, including a pistol and knives, they said had been found during overnight raids where eleven people were arrested.
Monday marks the six-month anniversary of the protests during which some 6,000 people have been arrested and hundreds injured, including police.
Online forums used to organise the movement’s more radical wing have vowed to target Monday’s morning commute if there is no response from Lam.
Years of huge, peaceful democracy marches have made little headway, leading to increased radicalisation among some Hong Kong protesters and a greater willingness to embrace violent tactics.
But there is little sign Lam is willing to budge, leading to fears the lull in street clashes will be temporary.
In a statement released ahead of the march, Hong Kong’s government said it had “learned its lesson and will humbly listen to and accept criticism.” But it announced no concrete measures or concessions.
Since the local elections the city’s chief executive has remained steadfast in her opposition to further concessions and Beijing has stuck by her even as she languishes with record low approval ratings.
The police force’s reputation has also taken a hammering.
Police have defended their handling of the protests and say their force has matched rising violence from hardcore protesters.